Centred around Oscar Wilde’s lover – the one that inspired Dorian – the story in The Picture of John Gray takes on the challenge of delving deeper into Wilde’s set. Tracking the life of the vain and air-headed John (Patrick Walshe McBride), whose brief but intense involvement with Oscar made him a favourite amongst the artistic crowd, the play sheds light on the circumstances in which some of our most cherished literature and painting was produced. Writer C.J. Wilmann cleverly denies Oscar an actual appearance, yet his name is mentioned in nearly every scene.
Once John falls in love with André (Christopher Tester), a literary critic whose influence will be felt until the very end, a love story unfolds against the backdrop of Wilde’s prosecution for indecency. His friends, Charles and Charles – the painter couple very well played by Oliver Allan and Jordan McCurrach – and the temperamental Bosie (a convincing Tom Cox) complete the circle. While in Berlin with André, John decides that Catholicism is the way to go and journeys to Rome to be educated as a priest. Upon his return, we find that the relationships have somewhat shifted.
Much of the action takes place in the two Charleses’ warm and inviting household, where poetry evenings fuelled by good wine are the order of the day. As part of the audience, you have to suppress the urge to get up and join the merriment at The Vale, the pair’s Chelsea home that had become a safe haven in an otherwise increasingly intolerant London. The poems are, of course, original material in a play in which very little liberty is taken with history.
Whilst the subject matter is serious and deserves pondering, this show is often simply very funny, not least because of the camp-ness of some of the characters combined with excellent writing. The first act especially is a delight; in the second, some of the scenes become a tad expositional and sometimes slightly repetitive. This doesn’t, however, make too much of an impact on a show in which the moods are confidently and effectively set by solid lighting and sound design (by Matt Haskins and Chris Walters). It is as much about the words as it is about the atmospheric style of the piece, which continues throughout and is never thrown, not even by the great many roars of laughter it gets.
A bold new piece of writing, The Picture of John Gray is a delightful show throughout and admirable in its aim to illuminate what, after all, is a dark episode in history, interwoven with a very personal story of the love that dare not speak its name.
The Picture of John Gray is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 30 August. For tickets and more information, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website.